We are drifting towards a religion which consciously or unconsciously keeps its eye on humanity rather than on Deity— which lays all the stress on service, and hardly any of the stress on awe: and that is a type of religion, which in practice does not wear well.Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life
This claim – that we are drifting towards a religion without awe – was made by Evelyn Underhill back in the 1920s, in a talk that she gave to clergy in England. This series of talks were compiled and published in her little book, Concerning the Inner Life, a book that I re-read fairly regularly. I find her words very thought-provoking, and perhaps even prophetic. What do you think about her claim? Do you think that she turned out to be right, that we have drifted toward a religion which lays all the stress on service, and hardly any on awe? Here is a little more of what she had to say about this:
A shallow religiousness, the tendency to be content with a bright ethical piety wrongly called practical Christianity, a nice, brightly-varnished this-world faith, seems to me to be one of the ruling defects of institutional religion at the present time. We are drifting towards a religion which consciously or unconsciously keeps its eye on humanity rather than on Deity— which lays all the stress on service, and hardly any of the stress on awe: and that is a type of religion, which in practice does not wear well. It does little for the soul in those awful moments when the pain and mystery of life are most deeply felt.
A religion without awe offers little to our souls in the “awful moments” of life. This pandemic has been an “awful moment,” hasn’t it? But, along with the stress it has brought to our world, this pandemic has also made it difficult for our congregations to make the same practical differences in our communities that we have been accustomed to making. We are still doing our best, of course, to feed the hungry, to teach our children, to create opportunities for fellowship and service, to proclaim the gospel, and to strive for justice and peace in our communities. But the pandemic has made it difficult to do these things. And so, for congregations that are more focused on humanity than Deity, this pandemic has led to something of an existential crisis. Who are we if cannot do these practical things?
Now, I am certainly not discounting the practical things that congregations and should do. And I continue to look for ways to help our own congregation engage in these things. To be faithful to the mission to which Jesus has called us, we must continue doing these things. But also important to our life together as the body of Christ is what Underhill describes as awe. The awe that we encounter in worship, and in prayer, whenever we spend time in the presence of our loving God. And whenever we help others to do the same. These things are vital, and especially in the “awful moments” of life. This pandemic has provided a painful reminder that being overly focused on service, at the expense of prayer, worship, and awe, truly does not “wear well.”
So, what are we to do about this? Underhill makes this suggestion:
I do not think we can deny that there is at present a definite trend in the direction of religion of this shallow social type; and it will only be checked if and and so far as the clergy are themselves real persons of prayer.
Church leaders must be real people of prayer. When I read her words, I take them personally, as a call to action. It starts with me, in other words, and with all clergy. We must make sure that we are real persons of prayer. But not just clergy – all who would serve as leaders in the church, in whatever capacity they are called. Which, I suspect, is nearly everyone reading these words. But, nonetheless, I am one of those that Underhill names, and so I am reminded that an important aspect of leading my congregation to life beyond this pandemic is simply to make sure that I continue to be a real person of prayer. This will help me and my congregation from drifting toward offering a religion without awe.
Help me, Lord, to do this – to always be a real person of prayer. Help me to tend to my inner life, my life with you, in ways that truly nourish my soul and lift up those whom I encounter, so that I can faithfully lead your congregation on the journey to which you call us. Help us all to experience the awe of being in your presence, the awe that does so much when the pain and mystery of life are most deeply felt. Help us, in other words, to experience your presence in our midst, just as you promise us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.